March 21, 2014

Signs of spring everywhere on Kansas prairie

Any day now, whooping cranes are expected to pass through the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Any day now, whooping cranes are expected to pass through the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Last year, the first whooping crane arrived on March 6.

In 2012 and 2011, the whoopers arrived on March 16.

“Statistically, their peak movement is the last week of March and the first two weeks of April,” said Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at the refuge, in Stafford County.

The arrival of the whoopers generally signals the spring migration. But there are signs that spring has arrived.

Already, flocks of sandhill cranes have been passing through the refuge on their way to the staging grounds on Nebraska’s Platte River. Other birds – four tundra swans were spotted in Quivira along with a handful of pelicans, 200 Baird’s sandpipers and thousands of ducks – are resting in the water-filled marshes.

In the Flint Hills, prairie chickens have begun drumming and displaying.

The first of the purple martins have arrived in Wichita.

Everywhere, there are signs of spring on the Kansas prairie.

“I stopped shivering and I don’t have to lean into the cold wind,” said Jim Gray, a longtime rancher and cowboy historian from Ellsworth and publisher of the Kansas Cowboy newspaper. “I live on the high grounds and one way I know it is spring, I start seeing the turkeys come back. They go down on the river during the winter and you don’t see them on the high ground until spring.”

Other signs of spring, he said, are flocks of ducks and geese headed back north and newborn calves on the ground struggling to stand and take their first steps.

Jim Hoy, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University, said he smelled the first signs of spring Thursday morning.

“This morning, I could smell grass smoke coming in on the south wind,” Hoy said.

The burns, which can light up the night horizon across the Flint Hills and fill the lowlands with rolling smoke, have become an iconic symbol of spring in Kansas.

Burning the grass early in the growing season, instead of during the winter, minimizes the time the soil is bare and subject to erosion. The timing also catches many non-native weeds when they are most vulnerable to fire. Burning helps rid the prairie of hedge, thorny locust and red cedar.

“I’m seeing the cool season grasses are starting to green up,” Hoy said. “It will be another month or so before the bluestem starts to show green. But the horses are more interested in picking at the grass than eating hay.”

Other signs of spring?

Shawn Silliman, the naturalist manager at Chaplin Nature Center near Arkansas City, has seen the jonquils starting to bloom around the nature center.

“Some of the other things I’ve seen that tells me spring is here is that I’ve seen turtles out sunning themselves on some of the warm days we’ve had,” Silliman said. “I haven’t seen any snakes yet, but I expect that to occur any day.”

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